Sunday, February 15, 2009

THE TWO SAMS by Glen Hirshberg

I forget who recommended this to me, but I managed to find it at the library and took it out. It was a strange read.

These are, first and foremost, literary horror. I'll admit, a lot of the M. R. James and such that I like to read are primarily ghost stories with any literary and artistic concerns taking a back seat. But with Hirshberg, the literary is up front.

These are, in a way, the written-word partner to the movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, which was an arty film that never forgot it's supposed to be horror. Sometimes THE TWO SAMS loses its grasp on that paradigm, but for the most part it holds on.

It's five short stories, all tending to be more focused on the psychological than supernatural.

The first, "Struwwelpeter," is a teen's recollection of a Halloween night when an attempt at mischief resulted in a very frightening experience...but the real horror is in the hints of what comes of the main character of the piece, a sullen, resentful teenager who's brimming over with mayhem and...maybe something else?

"Shipwreck Beach" is the weakest of the lot. The narrator (who we don't realize for a while is female) visits her cousin in Hawaii, who's dealing with guilt over an accident in the past, and his general failure to make a go of it in life. He's become obsessed with a mysterious shipwreck off the coast, but their expedition ends oddly.

"Mr. Dark's Carnival" was my favorite. A history professor receives an invitation to the titular event, which (according to the story) is believed to be only a legend in his Montana town. It seems it's run by an immortal hangin' judge from the Old West, and gets pretty intense. This is the most visceral story of the bunch, a wild haunted-house ride...but there's a good psychological jolt as well. Most satisfying.

"Dancing Men" is an odd story of a Jewish boy visiting his dying grandfather in the desert, and taking part in an Amerind ritual for vague reasons. The real horror of the story is very indirect and lies mostly in inference, but it's the first story I've read in a while to incorporate the Golem legend.

"The Two Sams" is the last and shortest. A man and wife are tormented by the memory of two children who died in the womb, but he alone finds a certain comfort in what seems to be the ghosts of these unborn children. Or it's all in his head. It's hard to tell.

Hirshberg's pretty good with the psychological elements of his stories, but sometimes the sense of place seems strained. It's as if he really wants to give a sense of the landscape the stories are unfolding in, but all too often it seems like he has only a general idea of what he's writing about and can't really make it come alive. This is really obvious in the last story; there's a flashback to the narrator visiting Washington DC with his wife, and a mention of paying admission fees in all the Smithsonian museums...when in reality the Smithsonian museums do not charge admission.

They're flawed, but interesting. If you're in the market for something a bit more highbrow than the usual horror thing, then you could do much worse. But I do strongly recommend "Mr. Dark's Carnival." That should be required reading for anyone who runs a haunted house at Halloween.

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